A generation ago there was only one Norwegian orchestra worth hearing – the Oslo Philharmonic. Now the Bergen Philharmonic is bidding for the limelight. It owes its rising star to a string of polished recordings, so this UK tour, which began in Edinburgh on Thursday, offered a welcome chance to hear it “in person” – and a pleasantly personable ensemble it proved to be in a programme pairing Delius and Grieg in the first half, with Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben in the second. The string sonority, exemplified by concertmaster David Stewart in the Strauss violin solos, is ripe. The winds are consistent if hardly distinctive, and the overall sound has potential.
What the orchestra needs is more inspiring leadership, and we must hope that Andrew Litton’s soon-to-be-announced successor as music director will provide it. Litton’s busy, bottom-heavy style ensures performances that rarely rise above the efficient. His Heldenleben was brash, blasé, off-Broadway – too scattergun to be heroic at the outset, too casually shaped to be tragic by the end. The Bergen Philharmonic deserves a subtler, less superficial conductor.
But the pairing of Delius and Grieg was eloquent. Delius wrote Paa Vidderne (On the Mountains) under the inspiration of a walking holiday he undertook with the senior Norwegian composer in 1889, before he had found his own voice. A late Romantic tone poem with harmonies and melodies that copy Grieg’s, it has two or three climaxes too many, with only a smidgeon of autumnal repose in the middle to identify its composer. Litton conducted a loud, longwinded performance, but deserves credit for championing a work that no major British orchestra ventured to play during last year’s Delius 150th anniversary celebrations.
While it would have been useful to hear music by Lasse Thoresen or another representative of the modern Norwegian school, the Grieg Piano Concerto made a good fit – especially in such delicate, Chopin-esque hands as Christian Ihle Hadland’s, steering the work well clear of its guise as a Classic FM staple. Crisp in the opening movement, nuanced in the Adagio, his reading always had ample power in reserve, its freshness of touch wavering only in a slightly scrambled finale.